Last month I completed reading a book called "Sprint"* which is about quick prototyping of new ideas, and testing them with customers to gauge their reactions before spending too much time or money on building them. This agile process allows course-correcting based on market reaction. The book is written by three guys from Google Ventures, and is very much focused on business innovation, and how to speed up the learning process. It contains a range of examples, including Slack, FitStar and Savioke. While not the authors' intention, the section on prototyping-in-a-day sparked my thinking about careers, which is what this post is about.
First, some additional detail on prototyping. One chapter described building a prototype like a movie set. In effect, this is hacking a solution that offers just enough so that it appears real to target customers i.e. temporary simulation rather than long-term quality. It must be realistic to prompt genuine reactions: a level such that the customers you're testing it with forget their surroundings and just react (like a movie audience). The book shows this "just enough" in the form of a steep cumulative graph, where, within a day, you can get to a product / brochure / service experience that isn't perfect, but also doesn't take the huge time investment to improve it further. It is an application of the 80/20 rule or "Pareto principle".
Learning new skills
I began thinking about this in the context of learning and applying new skills, and the career distinction between being (i) a manager and generalist or (ii) a technical/functional specialist. As a manager, you need to be familiar with a variety of different disciplines. This is both to support your own team members who deal with each specialism, and also to see opportunities across disciplines and interface with varied functions across your wider organisation. In this context, it can be dangerous to be too wedded to your own discipline that you started from as you can miss the bigger picture. As you rise in seniority, you need to be willing to learn new skills at the same time as trusting those who work for you. The new skills also help you to know enough to challenge where necessary. I worked with someone who wore his lack of knowledge about some of the areas he was responsible for as a badge of honour, proudly declaring his disdain for expertise in those functions. While he probably saw this as bravado, you can imagine how those in his team with that domain knowledge felt when their leader spoke that way...
One advantage of "some knowledge" is that it means you are more flexible to change, and don't unnecessarily rush to defend your discipline at the slightest criticism. It is often said it takes 10 000 hours to become an expert at something - once you've spent even half that time, you become very invested in protecting it...
The advantages of expertise
Nevertheless, working towards being an expert is a very valid career strategy, especially in technical or scientific areas. For example, knowing a lot about your specialism is far more likely to lead you to a scientific breakthrough or a Nobel Prize. And, some doctors much prefer to be highly specialised (like a paediatric anaesthetist, for example) rather than a General Practitioner (GP) although, admittedly, this is very much down to individual preference.
Another aspect worth considering is the audience you're engaging with: expertise is relative. Your rudimentary ability to speak your second language may impress your fellow travellers while on holiday, but the locals won't think you're an expert. Similarly, it's definitely possible to appear knowledgeable for a limited time, but after a while, others may start to see that there is no depth behind the jargon and rote explanations you give. Both of these support the argument for growing your expertise.
Focus vs flexibility
It is worthwhile bearing in mind that being an expert at many things is almost impossible, which makes the choice of what to specialise in even more daunting, as you could end up focusing on the wrong areas. Being "good enough" at a number of things is a much safer strategy than aiming for perfection in only one area. And, once you've spent sufficient time to confirm that you enjoy or value these new areas, this allows you more choices of what to become better at (or switch across to if needed).
If being a manager is your goal, then you could also view managerial skills as ones to practice - in effect aiming to be a specialist in those (which would make you a better generalist!)... This includes skills like commercial acumen, communication, networking, building support etc. An analogy here is a sports team manager, who effectively specialises in managing the players and how they work together.
Consulting: depth vs breadth
Another area we've seen this come up is within the consulting industry. Working with our members has shown us that there are two main strategies for career success as a consultant: depth and breadth. The "depth" strategy involves picking a new/emerging area, becoming your consultancy's expert in that area, and signalling your expertise within your organisation and externally. This will make it likely you are always on projects requiring that specific expertise (as you will be seen as the go-to person). It is important to choose an area that is growing and will remain big for some time, and keep those skills relevant and up-to-date. Examples here from the financial services industry might include cyber security, fintech / insurtech, automation, specific tax knowledge, new accounting standards, or emerging regulatory requirements.
The other strategy of "breadth" involves bringing new projects to the consultancy by networking widely, and understanding what your customers' needs are, spotting opportunities to provide solutions across specialisms. This requires good knowledge across a wider range of topics. The breadth of your understanding helps you to talk with Boards and senior executives, and translate your knowledge into how to solve their challenges. Bringing significant revenue to a consultancy is a great way to get yourself noticed, and promoted.
An Exercise For You
For each of your key skills, where would you plot yourself (relative to others) on the novice-to-expert continuum? And, in the limited time you have to improve these skills, are you investing wisely into the ones which will lead you to the best outcomes for your career?
Are there other skills which might benefit you to know more about, that you can practise in a safe environment before committing?
Perhaps the best approach is to spend time upfront on learning how to learn quickly and efficiently, so that you can reskill and adapt as circumstances change?
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